Why you should care
Because we all love watching stars rise.
If you’ve passed within a mile of a working television or a Hooters restaurant, you’ve already heard Dick Vitale shriek, “They’re awesome, baby, with a capital ‘A,’ ” enough times to believe the man is either lewd or onto something. And the truth is, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are the best freshmen in college basketball.
Yet more than a few freshmen have escaped both Vitale’s beady eye and the Naismith Award shortlist. If you’re planning to enter an NCAA bracket this March and want to do something more than pick winners based on mascot ferocity, here are some up-and-comers you’ll be hearing about in seasons to come.
CHIMEZIE METU, Center, University of Southern California
A 6-foot-11 stick figure with raw talent almost as impressive as his McDonaldland Fry Kids haircut, Metu has emerged as a dunk machine and an NBA prospect. Though recruited by both USC and UCLA, he was hardly a household name coming out of high school, and he remains virtually unknown outside the Pac-12. Yet he manages to make at least one stunning, jaw-dropping, “one kid in a million can do that” play a night. In USC’s victory at UCLA, Metu destroyed the Bruins, leading Bill Walton, lifelong bosom buddy of crazy talk, to compare Metu to NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon.
The big surprise with Metu, says Josh Gershon, recruiting analyst at scout.com, is how quickly he has stepped in at USC and become a legitimate rim protector. “He has to become more efficient around the bucket and as a jump shooter,” Gershon says, “but he’s a serious NBA prospect.”
TRES TINKLE, Forward, Oregon State University
Runaway leader for best name in college basketball, Tinkle occasionally looks lost on defense, sort of like an earnest terrier chasing a mail truck. But give him the ball and he’s a player transformed: dangerous from three, with an impressive intermediate game too. Gershon says Tinkle is “quick enough to beat threes off the dribble, strong enough in the post to overpower twos.” The son of OSU coach Wayne Tinkle, he’s more than just “cerebral” or “savvy” — labels that all but scream “useless white athlete.” Tinkle is smooth, even graceful, and with some work in the gym, he has the potential to blossom as a four-year star.
“He’ll be an all-conference player very soon,” predicts Gershon.
BRYANT CRAWFORD, Guard, Wake Forest
Some people are front-runners. They’re hard to understand and yet immediately identifiable: Show me a Duke fan and and I’ll show you an asshole. For the rest of us, there are teams like Wake Forest to support. We live in hope that, one day, Wake might bear passing resemblance to a good team. If it does, it’ll be down to Crawford, the Deacons’ freshman point guard.
That Crawford plays for Chris Paul’s old school makes the comparison obvious, but his play, particularly against top competition (22 points against Virginia, 18 at North Carolina), suggests he’s capable of leading a Deacons resurgence. He turns the ball over too often, and his shooting percentage, particularly at the rim, needs to rise, but playing for a Wake team that features as much promising talent as it does Bzdelik-era wreckage, he’s getting plenty of opportunities.
TYLER DAVIS, Forward/Center, Texas A&M
In many ways the anti-Metu, Davis is big, slow and sorta not an impressive athlete whatsoever. He’s 6-foot-10 and it’s not a given he can even dunk. But he is making a name for himself in the SEC largely because — like similarly limited, slightly doughy forefather Zach Randolph — he knows how to play basketball.
Davis seems to accumulate points without actually doing anything, filling the stat sheet with an assortment of free throws, tip-ins and 2-foot layups. But this belies the work he puts in to get himself in position to hit those layups and putbacks. He uses his frame to bully smaller defenders, working his way so deep on the block as to simply catch, turn and score. Like Randolph, he understands leverage and angles and possesses uncommon tenacity and confidence for such a young player. His prospects at the next level are slim at present, but if he develops a jump shot, he could have a career.
COREY SANDERS, Guard, Rutgers
Sanders, a 6-foot-2 guard who (inexplicably) chose to enter the black pit of despair that is Scarlet Knights basketball, is proving to be a lot of things: too good for Rutgers, a touch difficult (on Monday, he was hit with a two-week suspension for violating team rules). But his stats are backed up by real talent. Scott Golden, VP of basketball at scouting firm Elite Basketball Services, calls Sanders one of the best athletes in the country: “In terms of skill set, athleticism, the chip on the shoulder he plays with and uses as motivation,” says Golden, “he’s a Russell Westbrook clone.”
Sanders made waves with what might be the most incredible highlight reel ever assembled and had John Wall tweeting about him before he played a minute in college. So far, so good, right? But no. Sanders has already been demoted from the starting lineup once this season for lack of “energy and positive spirit” at practice. The Scarlet Knights are 6-20, 0-13 in the Big 10, so that dearth of positivity is likely the result of Sanders looking around and concluding that his teammates, er, suck. Nevertheless, if coach Eddie Jordan can assist on the talent front, the future for the program, and for Sanders, looks bright (as bright as a central Jersey winter sky gets at least).